The man whose company held back a reinforced North Vietnamese regiment at Long Tan, before fighting for his soldiers to be recognised, has died.
CAPTION: Major Harry Smith in Saigon, Vietnam, August 1966. Story by Warrant Officer Class Two Max Bree. Photos courtesy of the Australian War Memorial.
Lieutenant Colonel Harry Smith, the national serviceman turned career soldier, died on August 20 at the Sunshine Coast aged 90, two days after the battle’s 57th anniversary.
After serving during the Malayan Emergency, Lieutenant Colonel (then Major) Smith rose to prominence in Vietnam as Officer Commanding of Delta Company, 6th Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment, during the Battle of Long Tan.
Lieutenant Colonel Smith’s company was patrolling a rubber plantation when it ran into a much larger enemy force advancing towards the Australian base at Nui Dat on August 18, 1966.
In an article published in the Australian War Memorial’s Wartime magazine in 2006, Lieutenant Colonel Smith said: “Almost continuous VC tracer rounds lit up the gloom as they raced past us like supersonic fireflies”.
“The heavy rain turned the earth into the mud we lay in.
“White latex oozed from bullet holes in rubber trees. VC snipers went up trees, to be shot or blown down.”
During the battle, Delta Company held off numerous enemy attack waves thanks to tenacious fighting and artillery support.
“The volume and noise of all the artillery and small arms fire was horrendous – deafening – but, in hindsight, wonderful music,” Lieutenant Colonel Smith said.
The enemy got so close to Delta Company’s position, Lieutenant Colonel Smith ordered his famous fire-support request: “Drop 50. Danger Close. Fire for effect”.
Headquarters refused until Lieutenant Colonel Smith grabbed the radio handset from his signalman and shouted, “give us the f—— guns where we want them or you will lose the bloody lot of us”.
Despite being resupplied with ammo dropped from Royal Australian Air Force helicopters, Delta Company was on the verge of being overrun until armoured personnel carriers arrived with reinforcements and broke up the enemy massing for a final attack.
“All firing ceased as though the tap was turned off,” Lieutenant Colonel Smith said.
He later recalled his men were too busy doing what they needed to repel the onslaughts that fear of what could have been only sank in when the battle ended.
“Outnumbered, we just got on with what we had trained for – killing the enemy – to survive,” Lieutenant Colonel Smith said.
“The dedication of my men to helping and giving covering fire to their mates and assisting the wounded was outstanding.”
Delta Company lost 18 soldiers killed and 24 wounded.
CAPTION: Warrant Officar Class Two Jack Kirby and Major Harry Smith, front right, test-firing an SG-43 Goryunov heavy machine gun captured at the Battle of Long Tan.
Writing later, Lieutenant Colonel Smith said Australians buried 245 enemy and found other graves along bloodied withdrawal routes.
“Documents indicated their losses were some 800 killed or died from wounds, with around another 1000 wounded,” he said.
After returning from Vietnam, Lieutenant Colonel Smith served overseas and then as the chief instructor at the Parachute Training School. He left the Army in 1976 following a parachuting injury.
Lieutenant Colonel Smith received a Military Cross for his actions at Long Tan, but was angered when few of the decorations he recommended for his men were awarded.
This began a two-decade fight to have the correct medals presented.
In 2008, Lieutenant Colonel Smith’s award was upgraded to a Star of Gallantry and several of his soldiers also received upgrades.
After a 2016 review, the last of his men received the medals Lieutenant Colonel Smith had recommended 50 years earlier.
CAPTION: Major Harry Smith receiving the ribbon to the Military Cross for Gallantry, January 1967.